In 1964, teenage brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Khalis Bayyan (born Ronald Bell), unable to afford drums, would collect old paint cans in their Youngstown, Ohio neighborhood and use them as makeshift percussion instruments. It was a crude way to learn music — the brothers would figure out different tones depending on how much paint was in each can — but it launched a musical career that has lasted more than 50 years.
After moving to Jersey City, New Jersey, the duo set up shop in front of the subway in New York’s Greenwich Village, adding cheap drums to their paint-can ensemble. “We’d make about five dollars in three weeks,” Khalis says, laughing.
The Bell brothers went on to form the Jazziacs with high school friends, eventually transforming into Kool & the Flames and, finally, Kool & the Gang. The revered funk-pop group has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide and spent the past year celebrating half a century together.
At this point, it’s easy to take Kool & the Gang’s catalog for granted. Perpetual life-event earworms like “Ladies Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” are so ubiquitous, they’ve become embedded into our national consciousness. Over the course of 23 albums, starting with 1969’s Kool and the Gang through the 2013 Christmas album Kool for the Holidays, the band has morphed from jazz unit to leading funk ensemble to smooth pop-soul group with the addition of vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor in 1979.
After opening for Van Halen and Kid Rock in recent years, the group continues to tour on its own and will be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame and New Jersey Hall of Fame this October. We sat down with the Bell brothers to discuss the stories behind their most iconic tracks.